What Does Cancer in the Jaw Feel Like?

Reviewed on 4/22/2021

A swollen and painfully stiff jaw that prevents a person from opening the mouth fully may be a sign of jaw or oral cancer.
A swollen and painfully stiff jaw that prevents a person from opening the mouth fully may be a sign of jaw or oral cancer.

A swollen and painfully stiff jaw that prevents a person from opening the mouth fully may be a sign of jaw or oral cancer. Tumors in the jaw often do not have symptoms until later stages. They are usually discovered during routine X-ray. Possible symptoms of cancer in the jaw are as follows:

  • Scarring usually prevents the jaw from stretching as far as it normally would. Trismus is considered a precancerous sore that may be a sign of cancer development.
  • In few cases, the doctor may detect a lump near the jaw area. A lump on the roof of your mouth or along your gum line may be symptoms of jaw cancer that you may experience. While a lump could be an infection or benign growth, it could also be a sign that cancer is developing on the jawbone beneath the mouth's soft tissues. If you notice a new lump inside the mouth and it doesn't resolve itself in two weeks, reach out to a medical professional.
  • Recurrent swelling in the jaw that makes the teeth loose or dentures fit poorly may also be a sign of cancer. Tumors in the jawbone can also lead to unexplained tooth mobility, pushing your teeth out of place. You may notice that your teeth are loose or suddenly shifting positions.
  • Jaw tumors are diagnosed clinically because their growth causes swelling of the face, palate, or alveolar ridge (part of the jaw supporting the teeth). They can also cause bone tenderness and severe pain.

Jaw cancer is usually an extension of oral cancer or head and neck cancer.

  • Oral cancer includes cancer of the tongue, gum and jaw bone (sarcoma).
  • The most common sign of oral cancer may be difficulty moving the jaw.
  • Multiple types of tumors, both benign and malignant, can appear in the mouth and jaw.

How common is jaw cancer

Jaw cancer is a rare type of head and neck cancer. This type of cancer usually doesn’t spread to other areas of the body. Compared with other types of cancer, oral cancer is less common. According to the American Cancer Society, about 54,000 people will be diagnosed with oral cancer in 2021. Moreover, oral cancer affects men twice as often as women, and the average age of diagnosis is 62 years of age. However, head and neck cancer accounts for approximately 3 percent of all cancers in the United States. Approximately 30,000 cases are diagnosed each year, and about 8,000 people die annually because of oral cancer. The incidence of oral cancer is increasing. Over 50,000 people are diagnosed with some form of head and neck cancer each year within the United States. The risk factors for oral cancer include

  • Oral cancer usually occurs in people older than 40 years of age. It is twice as common in men as in women.
  • Smoking: About 75 perecent of people diagnosed with oral cancer are tobacco users. The higher the tar yield, the higher the risk of oral cancer.
  • Smoking and alcohol consumption: Tobacco and heavy drinking act together to significantly increase the risk (higher than the sum of two effects independently).
  • Poor oral health
  • Infective agents, particularly the wart virus human papillomavirus types 16 and 18, have been implicated in some oral cancers (a sexually transmitted virus).
  • Prolonged sun exposure
  • A poor diet low in fruits and vegetables
  • The risk of oral cancer is higher for African Americans.
  • Irritation caused by dentures that don’t fit well
  • Taking immunosuppressive drugs
  • Lichen planus, a disease affecting the cells in the mouth’s lining
  • A history of head and neck cancer
  • Exposure to radiation

Treatment of oral cancer depends on the type of cancer and stage of the cancer.

  • In general, diagnosis and treatment during the early stages of cancer have a much better outcome.
  • Oral squamous cell carcinoma is generally treated by surgery and/or radiation therapy.
  • Chemotherapy may also be used, particularly in people with confirmed metastases to other tissues and organs.
  • Surgery is done to remove the primary tumor and some of the surrounding normal tissue to make sure that it is completely removed. Surgery performed at later stages may also require reconstruction of parts of the mouth or face.
  • Radiation therapy, which may be combined with chemotherapy, is necessary after the surgery to remove all traces of the cancer.

The five-year survival rate is approximately 50 percent. This is because oral cancer can be aggressive and difficult to treat. Oral cancer is often diagnosed at an advanced stage after the cancer has spread (metastasized) to the lymph nodes of the neck. Even the treatment has side effects; hence, early diagnosis is the only way to survive oral cancer.

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References
Oral Cancer: Overview: https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?contenttypeid=35&contentid=FAQOralCancer

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